I was born in Brooklyn, New York in January 1968. I love New York City. For me, NYC is both a geographical and a spiritual home; it is a place that I navigate easily, where my loud voice, brown skin, and heavy footsteps fall right into place, and where I feel completely in my element. One of the things that native New Yorkers will admit hesitantly is that NYC is not a clean city. Vibrant, yes. Busy, of course. Multicultural and multilingual, certainly. But clean? Not so much. That’s why native New Yorkers secretly love heavy rainfall. Rest assured that it will be nearly impossible to hail a yellow taxi when it rains, but when the cloudy heavens open, the grey concrete streets begin to glisten like hematite crystals. Randomly scattered trash will find its way to the cross-hatch gutters on the street corners, and for a moment NYC will be as clean as Chicago or Seattle.
For the past few years, and more intensely in the last few weeks, I have been hoping and praying that our cities and the entire country be washed clean of the filth of bigotry and intimidation, the toxicity of police brutality, and the pollution of indifference. My fervent prayer has been “Make it rain, down Lord. May justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream, as the purest of Kings once said. Make it rain down a fire that will purify our hearts and refine the American dream so that there is truly liberty and justice for all.” I thought about the song “Make it Rain,” written by Foy Vance, a Northern Irish musician, and I thought about the robust conversations that I’ve had in the past with Hamlin girls about diversity and democracy. I then thought about our sacred mission:
“The Hamlin School educates girls to meet the challenges of their time, and inspires them to become extraordinary thinkers and innovators, courageous leaders, and women of integrity.”
Like the streets of my beloved NYC, this country is unclean. It is not well. A clean bill of health cannot yet be granted to America because she suffers from the sickness of past and present systems of bias and oppression. We live in a country where Native Americans were cruelly displaced, killed, and isolated on reservations, where Jews, Catholics, and immigrants from Europe and Asia were made to feel less than human, supposedly welcomed as Americans but forced to live on the margins of society because of language and religion. We live in a country where sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are often misunderstood concepts in the abstract and mistreated people in reality. We live in a country that embraced slavery, where after Reconstruction and through Jim Crow a huge part of the population was subject to terrorism, to constant threats of being lynched and fire-bombed. It would be very easy to say that our current president got this ugly party started, but that is simply not true. It seems to me that he has cranked up the volume of the music that was already playing, but he didn’t turn it on. What we are now hearing and seeing more publicly is the poisonous stream that flows through American history, and I don’t want anyone here to believe that bigotry is new. I also want you to work hard to avoid a dangerous trap that I see in well-meaning people who have good intentions and a burning desire to do something. The dangerous trap is that Americans will be so busy protesting against explicit bias that they will absolve themselves of the responsibility to examine their own implicit biases. It’s so much easier to point at the Ku Klux Klan rather than challenge our clan of friends or family.
Let me share a bit of my truth with you to explain further. There are polite restaurant proprietors not too far away from my home who constantly assume that I am not a paying customer and that I have arrived to pick up a Postmates or DoorDash order. There are well-meaning managers of two particular stores on nearby Union Street who feel the need to follow me around the store and tell me how much items cost as I browse and shop.
Several months ago a woman got out of her hybrid car and called my husband the n-word because she was angry that he had stopped to pick me up from a local juice shop. With my sons in the car, and Robert in the driver’s seat, she told us to get out of her neighborhood. We were two blocks from our home. (I am still praying that she has a daughter in preschool and that she shows up here on an admissions tour.) Seriously, though, she drives a hybrid car presumably as a commitment to environmental sustainability but readily pollutes the air with the n-word?
Obviously, I am deeply disturbed and frightened by angry white men in hoods holding burning crosses and waving Confederate flags, and I believe wholeheartedly that courageous action is required to shut them down; but my point is that the work of equity and justice must be done outside of us and within us. The same Americans who readily condemn hate speech from Neo-Nazis should also ask themselves if they engage in toxic gossip at work. Both explicit bias and implicit bias make our cities and countries sick. If explicit bias is the high-temperature fever, implicit bias is like the nagging cough or runny nose that never seems to go away.
Thus, I believe that our school’s plan to address recent events in Charlottesville should begin with taking a good look at ourselves in a full-length mirror and considering the ways in which we as individuals and institutions perpetuate systems of privilege and preference. The best shot we have at health and wellness—as a country and as a school—is to start working locally in our spheres of influence. Imagine what we could create together if we consistently demonstrated through our words and actions a genuine commitment to the school, its mission, its leadership, and each other? What would we need to start doing, what would we need to stop doing, and what would we need to continue to do?
Telling the girls and their parents that we will not tolerate unkindness or exclusion is not a partisan claim or a political agenda. It is a proclamation of our shared values as a school. As educators, we cannot dwell in a comfort zone of neutrality given everything that is happening in our world. As I said many times last fall, it has never been our job to tell our girls what to think– but it has always been our duty to teach them how to think and how to treat others. In the brilliant words of Brazilian author Paulo Freire:
“There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
So, I believe that our plan should be to work from the inside out.
Given all that I have said this morning, it won’t surprise you that this year’s school theme is about health. I have chosen a line from a Buddhist blessing as this year’s theme: May You Be Well.
May Each One of You Be Well.
May You Be Well, Hamlin.
May You Be Well, San Francisco.
May You Be Well, United States of America.
Hamlin will open its doors to vivacious learners who are eager to think freely and transform the world. We will not pretend that there are no urgent crises or challenges. There are many. We will probe juicy ideas, we will wrestle with ambiguity, we will welcome mistakes and correct them, we will untangle heated disagreements, we will defend positions with facts and evidence, we will learn from awesome teachers and fellow students….this is what Hamlin is all about.
We gather in this space and at this time on purpose and with purpose. We gather because we want to do excellent work in a supportive environment. We gather in this place, The Hamlin School, because we believe in its future. We gather because we have a mission to fulfill and a Creed to embody: compassion, courage, honesty, respect and responsibility. We gather because we want to harness our collective energy and intellect to bring healing to our cities and country. We are called to this place, and I am deeply honored to begin Hamlin’s 154th year with you.
-These were Wanda M. Holland Greene’s opening remarks to Hamlin’s faculty and staff.